al-Jazari’s Book of Ingenious Devices, 1206

In 1206, an engineer named Ismail al-Jazari published a book about inventions. It was a Do It Yourself manual, showing 100 things he had built, with diagrams for how to build them yourself.

al-Jazari was the chief engineer in the Artuklu Palace, in modern southeastern Turkey, where the Artuqid dynasty ruled. The Artuklu Palace had gardens and baths, which all required water systems. It also had clocks and other devices to keep it going. The Palace became a prison in the 1500s and then fell apart; it’s now a mound that’s been excavated. Much of what we know about the Artuklu Palace at its height comes from al-Jazari’s book.

al-Jazari makes very clear that he has only given descriptions and diagrams of things that he built, himself. It’s a little hard to tell what he invented outright, as opposed to what he built on existing models and just tinkered with. He did a little of both. The book’s greatest importance is that it documents the use of some mechanical devices not yet in use in Europe, such as:



–segmental gear

–escapement mechanism to control rotation speed of a wheel

Many or most of his machines moved water or used it for power. Water clocks were the high technology of the time: gravity is constant, so if an aperture controlled the volume of falling water, they could accurately keep track of time. Of course, water had to be moved in order to become a power source. There were moving buckets and pumps to carry water up so that it might fall down. al-Jazari may have written the first description of a suction pump, saying he based it on the Byzantine device for shooting Greek fire at ships.

Perhaps the most advanced mechanical device he illustrated was how to convert rotary motion to reciprocal motion, using a crankshaft. In one single pump, he demonstrated this crankshaft, a double-acting cylinder in which fluid worked on both sides of the piston, and suction of water up a pipe by partial vacuum on the other side.

The book was copied many times and exists today in many manuscripts. That shows that it was a popular work for book sellers to carry. It seems likely that it came to Europe with less delay than older Arabic books had done, now that Europeans were all over the Near East. Europe was in the middle of a relatively slow but profound transition from hand tools to mechanical devices worked by water and wind. By the close of the Middle Ages, mills using many of al-Jazari’s devices were powering tools for nearly every trade.



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